Trails and Cocktails in Gaston County, N.C.

North Carolina's first rum distillery has reached a whole new audience with the addition of a spiced and a coconut offering.
North Carolina's first rum distillery has reached a whole new audience with the addition of a spiced and a coconut offering. Muddy River Distillery
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Few things pair better in Gaston County than a day of outdoor activity and a post-adventure cocktail. Thanks to the rare breed of creative entrepreneurs, it is now possible to enjoy a glass of wine, a pint of beer, or a shot of rum produced entirely in the county. Differing in their approach but common in their vision, these passionate producers have placed their unique stamp on their given craft.

Whether it’s a day spent on the river followed by a cold ale, a bike ride through lakefront forest before a refreshing rum cooler, or bagging some peaks and sipping a glass of classic Carolina wine, here are the perfect Gaston County trail and cocktail pairings.

A Paddle and a Pint

Pat Brennan of Rivermen Brewing stands in front of the five tap system at the old site. The new location for the brewery will have 24 taps, a farm to table restaurant, and tons of outdoor seating.
Pat Brennan of Rivermen Brewing stands in front of the five tap system at the old site. The new location for the brewery will have 24 taps, a farm to table restaurant, and tons of outdoor seating. Rob Glover

When it came time to tack a moniker on his fledgling brewery, Pat Brennan—an avid whitewater kayaker—didn’t need to deliberate long.

“When I told my buddies I wanted to start a brewery they said, ‘That’s great, we’ll help you out,’” says Brennan. “I couldn’t have done it without them. The story for me is that we all met on the rivers and creeks across the Southeast.”

And so Rivermen Brewing Company was born. Originally filling a 500-square-foot facility in east Belmont with a 300 barrel-per-year brewing system and a small tasting room, the brewery has expanded to a much larger location downtown. The new Rivermen will feature an eclectic farm-to-fork food menu and a rotation of the true-to-style beers that the brewery has become known for.

Of course, before visiting a brewery founded by paddlers, it makes sense to spend some time on the water. Just east of Belmont, the Catawba River runs wide and placid. Its tree-lined banks form a wildlife theater where fish and fauna and fowl participate in an unscripted play. Look for the haughty osprey, soaring high above in search of their next meal. Notice a turtle, sitting still as stone near the bank. And watch the impossible grace of the long-legged heron as it glides just feet from the water’s surface.

The Paddling Club at Tailrace Marina offers an excellent conduit to access the daily theatrics on the Catawba. Their fleet of canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards are available to rent for a self-guided exploration. For a more structured tour, the certified guides and instructors take groups into the hidden coves of the area and teach all manner of paddling skills.

A Spin on the Bike and a Shot of Rum

Owner/distillers Rob and Carolina Delaney are involved in every aspect of the business, including acting as tour guide.
Owner/distillers Rob and Carolina Delaney are involved in every aspect of the business, including acting as tour guide. Muddy River Distillery

Muddy River Distillery is a true Gaston County success story. In 2012 it became the first rum distillery in North Carolina. Demand has increased dramatically, and its products are now sold into South Carolina and as far away as the Outer Banks. The distillery’s two locally made stills, affectionately named “Liberty” and “Democracy,” are maxed out and another is in the works. With the addition of two new styles—a lightly sweet coconut and a full bodied spiced rum—the audience is expanding for the Belmont-based company.

Of course, the path to success wasn’t always a sure thing.

“I thought he was going to blow everything up,” jokes Caroline Delaney of her husband Robbie’s early attempts at producing rum.

Despite the initial caution Caroline, a Gastonia native, has been a part of the distilling dynamic duo from the beginning. She and Robbie produce, bottle, and sell all their products.

Restaurants such as Catawba 10 in Belmont and Webb’s Custom Kitchen in Gastonia serve Muddy River rum locally, but you can also sample it straight from the source. Tours and tastings are available at the distillery each week with a schedule posted on their website.

On your way to sampling this new Gaston classic, take your bike to the smoothly rolling trail at Seven Oaks Preserve. For almost 3 miles the path meanders along the shores of Lake Wylie, alternating between serene views of the lake and shady dives into the forest that borders it.

As part of the ever-expanding Carolina Thread Trail, Seven Oaks not only offers a convenient way to enjoy some outdoor time, but also preserves a vital piece of land for all sorts of plants and animals. Huge swamp chestnut oaks line the trail, providing refuge for hawks and kingfishers.

Peak Bagging and Wine Sipping

The vineyard focuses on traditional muscadine wines as well as some off-the-wall flavors like pina colada.
The vineyard focuses on traditional muscadine wines as well as some off-the-wall flavors like pina colada. Rob Glover

Immortalized in song and literature, the muscadine grape is a part of American culture from its earliest days. First cultivated in the 1500s, it is the oldest such grape in the country. Fiddler’s Vineyard , the little winery tucked into the rolling farmland of northern Gaston County, is a celebration of all that is muscadine wine and the rustic Americana it evokes.

The name and the theme of the winery, “Where wine is composed on the vine,” is an homage to the most nostalgic of mountain music instruments: the fiddle. You’ll see one hanging in the wood-paneled tasting room. And sometimes, when you purchase a bottle of your favorite wine, owner Mark Crowder will saw out a tune for you.

A dozen or so rows of vines provide the muscadines for their signature product, however, the winery is famous for offering a wide and unusual variety. With names like Banana Split and Red Chocolate, it’s quickly understood that they aren’t afraid to experiment here.

Tastings are free at Fiddler’s Vineyard, and there couldn’t be a better location to sit back and watch a summer day roll by. Two roughly hewn, three-sided wood structures offer open-air seating and form the edge of an outdoor space designed to be filled with music and happy memories.

The outdoors space at Fiddler's Vineyard is a welcoming spot to sip some wine and while away a summer day.
The outdoors space at Fiddler's Vineyard is a welcoming spot to sip some wine and while away a summer day. Rob Glover

Before relaxing among the rows of muscadine, work up a thirst on the trails of Crowders Mountain State Park . Begin your visit at the park’s ranger station and nature center. Located at the Sparrow Springs Access, the center has several museum-quality exhibits describing the history and ecology of the area as well as maps, bathrooms, and helpful park rangers.

The trail system offers features both gentle, lakeside strolls and heart-pumping mountain climbs. Two peaks, Crowders Mountain and Pinnacle Mountain, bring drastic elevation changes and amazing views to opposite ends of the park. And a small lake is a peaceful backdrop for the gentle 1-mile trail that surrounds it.

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